Mountain Style Battle: Neo Tahoe vs. Old Tahoe
San Francisco Chronicle
In the 1930s, a town in Westchester County, New York banned construction of a new style of architecture that had migrated to the U.S. from Europe. In Europe the principles were considered “anti-bourgeois,” and considered well suited for workforce housing. In America, the fresh concepts appealed to the aesthetic elite in the middle and upper classes, especially in southern California, where in the 1920s, builders used new materials to create flat roofs, open floor plans and exposed structure, or “honest form.” Exterior ornament disappeared, and plate-glass walls dissolved any perceived separation from the outdoors. Steel-supported rooflines seemed more connected to sky than to earth.
The forms rarely found footing in the mountains, where vacationers preferred traditional homes. Although a blast of flat-roofed construction appeared at Lake Tahoe before the 1960 Olympics, afterward builders found that their roofs leaked or collapsed under snow. In time, “Old Tahoe” architecture triumphed, loyal as it was to the gable dormers and sloping earthbound rooflines popular in the Alps and Scandinavia. It prevailed until now.
“For a long time people had a preconception that mountain architectures consisted of peaked roofs and ornament,” says architect Clare Walton. “Recently people have wanted simpler ideas and forms that are backdrops to their lifestyles. We’ve seen a success in clean lines. That’s especially reflected in the roofs.”
International Style principles are emerging with new rigor all over North Tahoe, from Incline Village to Alpine Meadows, from Tahoe City to Tahoe Donner. They are most abundant in the new private community Martis Camp, where, of more than 100 homes under construction recently, between 40 and 50 percent have flat or low-sloping roofs, short or no overhanging eaves and long spans of steel.
There is notably “a blurring of the line between interior and exterior through the extension of materials that will run continuously from inside to out,” says Martis Camp Architecture Review Coordinator Vangela Wightman. “A stone tile terrace becomes the stone floor inside; cedar soffit material will extend into an entry and beyond.”
For all of its spare beauty, architect Sherry Guzzi thinks modernism means trouble. “The overhangs of traditional architecture are important, not only for the snow and rain, but also for the sun exposure and heat efficiency.” A great house will work well with the environment and also respond to the needs of the occupants, she says.
Contractor Bruce Olson concurs. Most of his luxury homes have blended the “Old Tahoe” vernacular with the muscular traditions of Norway and Sweden. “A traditional Tahoe home will incorporate wood, stone and warmer colors,” Olson says. “Some of the more contemporary homes are letting the outside in with glass, but there’s not a lot of wood. Let’s say you’ve been outside all day in the elements, and you come home and your home is all white and spotless clean. To me, that feels cold.”
But the architects building non-traditional homes say that if built right, the new structures meet the needs for climate protection and cozy shelter.
"What some may call modern, we think of as non objective...organic, a freedom of form assembled with natural materials that contribute to the built place," says architect Greg Faulkner. "How things are made and assembled is important in the work. There's expediency, honesty and clarity in the structure.”
New materials withstand the effects of a climate that heaps snow on the ground in winter and sends air temperatures soaring in summer. Triple-glazed glass limits interior heat loss and damage from ultraviolet rays. Cement-slab floors contain tubes circulating water for warmth. Structural Insulated Panels, or SIPs, form durable roofs, according to engineer Andrew Ryan.
Another shift: Non-traditional homes are trending smaller— 3,000 to 4,000 square feet instead of the recent giants besting 20,000 square feet.
"They are working retreats," Faulkner says. "The house is a tool for recharging fast-paced lives."
They are getaway homes for a new generation.
“You have a younger clientele coming up here now,” says architect Joel Sherman, who’s been designing non-traditional homes at Tahoe since 1993. “Whereas twenty years ago you had old Bay Area money, people who wanted nostalgia and had visions for a cabin.”
Faulkner argues that, in fact, history can resonate in the new homes. While the details may not mimic historical ornament, they stir memories.
"I think we have histories that we use for reference when experiencing a place," Faulkner says. He cited as an example a Lahontan house he recently designed, a sprawling Jenga web of glass, reclaimed redwood and stones acquired onsite. The massive stacked timbers create an old-redwood grove ambiance. Glass walls fitting around existing boulders provide visual passages to outside terrain. "If the place is a built landscape inhabitation of ground form and framework with layers of detail at varied sizes, it can more fully engage the senses, it can be memorable," Faulkner says.
In contrast to the Westchester County rebuff long ago, Martis Camp encourages architectural diversity. “The ‘Martis Camp Architecture Handbook’ was very deliberately written to be non-prescriptive, and to encourage and support high quality mountain architecture and well-composed design, regardless of stylistic approach,” Wightman said.
The architects who appreciate the principles of International Style, Bauhaus and American Mid-Century Modern, value the freedom.
“Ten years ago when I started working here, I thought I would never do any modern projects,” Walton says. “I hoped that eventually a client would say ‘I’d like you to come up with something fresh and new that I’ve never seen before.’”
With clients now eager to say such a thing, the sky’s the limit. Or is it?